The Little Way of the Little Flower: Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
It was an extraordinary scene in Saint Peter’s Square as the crowd chanted, “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood now!”), at the funeral for Pope John Paul II. Those cries will be validated by his canonization on April 27, 2014, Divine Mercy Sunday, together with the canonization of Blessed Pope John XXIII, but this formal affirmation by the Church does not create a saint, it only recognizes the reality that the person already is holy. Every canonization is a reminder that each of us is called to be a saint. The Second Vatican Council, which began its important work 50 years ago, spoke of the Universal Call to Holiness. We are charged “to live ‘as becomes saints,’ and to put on ‘as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience,’ and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness” (Lumen Gentium, 40).
This may seem like a difficult prospect. Hearing epic stories of the saints, we might believe that sainthood is beyond us. Years ago, a student asked me somewhat rhetorically, “Do you know what makes it so tough to be a Catholic?” Before I could respond, he answered, “You don’t get to pick and choose. Catholics are supposed to take the whole thing. That’s what’s tough!”
It can seem hard, embracing all that the Church teaches while striving to be a saint now. However, once we accept that those teachings and the holiness to which we are called are nothing but love, the love of God and neighbor (Lumen Gentium, 42), it’s not as daunting as we may think, especially with God’s help, his grace.
This is the lesson we learn from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She realized in her weakness that heroic deeds were beyond her because she was but a tiny soul. It was there that she found her vocation was simply love.
“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love?” Thérèse asked herself in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. “The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers, and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and doing the least of actions for love. I wish both to suffer and to find joy through love.”
Pope Francis, a devotee of hers, explained before his election that “the simple soul is like a child in the hands of God. Saint Thérèse unites simplicity with love – to do in love and for love the small tasks of each day, to make gestures of tenderness.” In proclaiming her a doctor of the Church, Blessed John Paul II called her an expert in “the science of love.”
This Thursday, October 3, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will be blessed to have present for the 5:15 p.m. Mass, as well as afterwards, the writing case of Saint Thérèse that she used to compose The Story of a Soul as well as many plays, poems, prayers and letters. Here is a visible sign of the enduring spiritual presence of the “Little Flower,” a presence that invites and inspires us in the story of our own souls.
Thérèse is one of the most popular saints today because of her writings and spiritual doctrine. She’s also a patron of missions. All this even though during her short lifetime – she died at the age of 24 – she was a cloistered Carmelite nun who was virtually unknown to the world. This is because of the evangelizing radiance of her words, witness, and prayer. Thérèse “counters a rational culture, so often overcome by practical materialism, with the disarming simplicity of the ‘little way’ which, by returning to the essentials, leads to the secret of all life: the divine Love that surrounds and penetrates every human venture,” said Blessed John Paul.
Most people will never have occasion to do what the world considers great and heroic things, but that’s no impediment to becoming a saint. Many of the quiet and loving deeds of good people really are great and heroic things. Saint Thérèse teaches that sanctity can be obtained, though, by doing even small everyday things with great love. One becomes blessed not by being superhuman, but by being like a child, poor in spirit, entrusting oneself to God and his grace. Imagine if this “little way” were to permeate the professions of law, medicine, education and the sciences, as well as the great technologies, culture, art and the daily lives of those involved in the trades, building, commerce and industry. The world would be transformed.